Oncorhynchus mykissCoast rainbow trout(Also: Hardhead; Kamloops; Redband; Salmon trout)

Geographic Range

Oncorhynchus mykiss are only native to the Pacific Coast of North America, extending from Alaska down to the border between California and Mexico. However, they have been introduced throughout the United States. and in every continent except for Antarctica for game fishing purposes. There are two forms: freshwater resident and anadromous. The resident form is commonly called rainbow trout while the anadromous form is called steelhead. (Delaney, 2005; "Oregon Coast Steelhead Evolutionary Significant Unit", 1998)


Freshwater, brackish, or marine waters of temperate zones. The anadromous form, called steelhead, spawn and complete their early development in freshwater mountain streams, then migrate to spend their adult life in the ocean. In freshwater, they prefer cool water but have been known to tolerate water temperatures up to 24°C (native climates have water temperatures around 12°C in the summer). Productive streams have a good mixture of riffles and pools and overhanging vegetation for shade. Most importantly, they require gravel beds to lay their eggs, and therefore, are sensitive to sedimentation and channel scouring. Juvenile trout prefer protective cover and low velocity water and have been known to be swept away and killed in water that is too fast. Since they are native to the western U.S., then tend to be found in coastal streams and rivers which naturally have reduced flow in summer months. (Behnke, 1992; Gall and Crandell, 1992; "Life History Notes: Rainbow Trout", 2005)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 3000 m
    0.00 to 9842.52 ft
  • Range depth
    10 to 200 m
    32.81 to 656.17 ft

Physical Description

Physical description varies widely with sex, age, and habitat. In general, they are streamlined, with 8 to 12 spines in the anal fin and lack teeth at the base of the tongue (unlike their close relatives, Oncorhynchus clarkii). The undersides tend to be silvery with a pinkish red stripe along the upper-middle part of the body, though this stripe can vary from dark to light. Resident rainbows and spawning steelhead tend to be lighter with more pronounced pink stripes, while ocean-going steelhead are darker and silvery to blend into their ocean environment. Most have black spots above the lateral line, and resident rainbows tend to have more intense spotting, well below the lateral line. Juvenile fish have 8 to 13 parr marks on their sides and become silvery as they mature. (Delaney, 2005; Gall and Crandell, 1992; Klontz, 1991; Van Hulle, 2005)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    25.4 (high) kg
    55.95 (high) lb
  • Average mass
    4 kg
    8.81 lb
  • Range length
    120 (high) cm
    47.24 (high) in
  • Range basal metabolic rate
    0.6 to 75 cm3.O2/g/hr
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    55 cm3.O2/g/hr


Oncorhynchus mykiss larvae go through a series of morphological changes to prepare for life in the sea, and spend their adult life there for 2 to 3 years before migrating upstream to spawn in their natal stream. ("The Life Histories of the Steelhead Rainbow Trout and Silver Salmon", 1954; Thrower, et al., 2004)


Female fish find suitable nest sites while their male mate guards the site from other interested males and predators. The female digs the nest (called a redd) with her anal fin and then descends upon it to position her vent and anal fin into the deepest part of the redd. The male joins her in a parallel position so that their vents are opposite each other. The male and female open their mouths, arch their backs, and deposit the eggs and milt (fish sperm) at the same time. The eggs are enveloped in a cloud of milt and are fertilized. Only a few seconds elapse from the time the female drops into the redd and fertilization occurs. The female then covers the nest with gravel and repeats the process again a few times until she has deposited all of her eggs. ("The Life Histories of the Steelhead Rainbow Trout and Silver Salmon", 1954)

Adult rainbow trout and steelhead lay their eggs in a series of nests in gravel. Collectively, the nests are called a redd. When they hatch, the hatchlings are still attached to, and survive on their yok sac. They remain in the protective gravel for about 2 to 3 weeks when they have shed their yolk sacs and are fit enough to survive in the open water. Juvenile fish tend to stick to shallow and side areas of the streams where there is protective cover and slow-moving currents. The remain in their native streams for 1 to 3 years while they grow fit enough to spawn or migrate to the ocean, in the case of steelheads. ("The Life Histories of the Steelhead Rainbow Trout and Silver Salmon", 1954; Behnke, 1992; Delaney, 2005; Thrower, et al., 2004)

  • Breeding interval
    Rainbow trout breed every three to five years. Though steelhead are one of the only salmonids able to spawn twice in a lifetime, the return rate is very low, about 10-20%
  • Breeding season
    Spawning occurs from March to July, depending on temperature and other climatic variables. Winter steelhead in California start spawning as early as January.
  • Range number of offspring
    200 to 8000
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range time to hatching
    3 to 16 weeks
  • Range time to independence
    one to three years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 to 11 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 to 11 years

Female rainbow trout and steelehead simply lay their eggs in a gravel bed and leave the young hatchlings to mature on their own. Male steelhead frequently breed with multiple female partners, possibly because more females than males die during the breeding period. (Delaney, 2005)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • inherits maternal/paternal territory


Oncorhynchus mykiss individuals live for 6 to 8 years in the wild, possibly up to 11 years. (Gall and Crandell, 1992; "Steelhead: Oncorhynchus Mykiss", 2005)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    11 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    6 to 8 years


Steelhead and rainbow trout are solitary fish, leaving the group of juveniles once they have hatched from eggs. As adults, they compete with all kinds of trout and salmon for food and habitat. The largest trout tend to get the best habitat. Adult steelhead have a remarkable homing instinct and consistently return to their natal stream to spawn. Steelhead have been known to migrate thousands of kilometers between the ocean and their natal stream to spawn. Migration ranges have been severely cut due to excessive damming of most western rivers and streams. ("The Life Histories of the Steelhead Rainbow Trout and Silver Salmon", 1954; Alexander, 1991; Behnke, 1992)

  • Range territory size
    10 to 5000 km^2

Home Range

Resident rainbow trout maintain small territories but also disperse from areas with higher population densities in order to find food. ("The Life Histories of the Steelhead Rainbow Trout and Silver Salmon", 1954; Behnke, 1992)

Communication and Perception

There is little communication between rainbow trout and steelhead. Once the fry emerge from the gravel, they become hostile to each other and compete for habitat. Larger fish usually win out the best habitat and food sources, and there is a size hierarchy within aquatic systems among all trout species. Potential mates communicate before spawning with visual cues. Oncorhynchus mykiss individuals are visual predators, relying on a keen sense of vision to detect prey. Trout species use both chemical cues and detection of the earth's magnetic fields to navigate to and from natal streams and on ocean journeys. (Grubb, 2003)

Food Habits

Rainbow trout and steelhead are insectivorous and piscivorous. Resident rainbow trout tend to eat more fish than steelhead. Both species primarily feed on invertebrate larvae drifting in mid-water to conserve energy that would be expended if they were foraging for food in the substrate. Young rainbow trout and steelhead eat insect larvae, crustaceans, other aquatic invertebrates, and algae. (Behnke, 1992; Delaney, 2005; Klontz, 1991; "Steelhead: Oncorhynchus Mykiss", 2005; Smith, 1991; Van Hulle, 2005)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • insects
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • algae


In the Great Lakes, sea lampreys are the most common predators of all salmonid species, including rainbow trout. Other predators in both native and introduced habitats include: larger trout, fish-eating birds like great blue herons (Ardea herodias), mergansers (Mergus), and kingfishers (Ceryle), and mammals including mink (Neovison vison and Mustela lutreola), raccoons (Procyon lotor), river otters (Lontra), grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), American black bears (Ursus americanus), humans, and larger marine mammals who feed on migrating steelhead. Rainbow trout tend to stick to the sides of streams and rivers where shading is prevalent, the water is less swift, and protection is greatest. Trout species are vigilant and capable of rapid swimming to escape predation. ("Steelhead: Oncorhynchus Mykiss", 2005; Smith, 1991)

Ecosystem Roles

Rainbow trout and steelhead are important predators in their native habitats, they also serve as important sources of food for larger predators. (Smith, 1991)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

These fish are one of the most popular game fishes around the world, leading to nearly global introduction. They are introduced to stimulate local angling and associated recreational economies. However, where they are introduced, they can outcompete native trout species. ("Steelhead: Oncorhynchus Mykiss", 2005; "Oregon Coast Steelhead Evolutionary Significant Unit", 1998; "Life History Notes: Rainbow Trout", 2005)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Rainbow trout have been introduced throughout the world, negatively impacting species of native freshwater fishes and, therefore, native fisheries.

Conservation Status

Steelhead are endangered in Washington and California, and threatened in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Most of their decline has resulted from impacts to habitat and shrinking of spawning routes due to dams and other diversions. Siltation, caused by forestry practices, and erosion, caused by urban and agricultural development, has also impacted spawning beds. (Behnke, 1992; Delaney, 2005; "Oregon Coast Steelhead Evolutionary Significant Unit", 1998; Van Hulle, 2005)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Katherine Ridolfi (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Kevin Wehrly (editor, instructor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


(as perception channel keyword). This animal has a special ability to detect the Earth's magnetic fields.


A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


having more than one female as a mate at one time


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. 2005. "Life History Notes: Rainbow Trout" (On-line). Accessed October 09, 2005 at http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/wildlife/Fishing/aquanotes-fishid/rtrout.htm.

NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources. 1998. "Oregon Coast Steelhead Evolutionary Significant Unit" (On-line). Accessed October 09, 2005 at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/concern/profiles/steelhead.pdf.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 2005. "Steelhead: Oncorhynchus Mykiss" (On-line). Accessed October 07, 2005 at http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10364_18958-45692--,00.html.

California Department of Fish and Game. The Life Histories of the Steelhead Rainbow Trout and Silver Salmon. Bulletin No. 98. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Fish and Game. 1954. Accessed October 10, 2005 at http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=kt9x0nb3v6&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=d0e1958&toc.depth=1&toc.id=d0e1958&brand=oac.

Alexander, G. 1991. Trout as Prey. Pp. 112-117 in J Schnell, J Stolz, eds. Trout: The Wildlife Series. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Behnke, R. 1992. Native Trout of Western North America. Bethesda, MD: American Fisheries Society.

Delaney, K. 2005. "Rainbow Trout: Wildlife Notebook Series" (On-line). Accessed October 09, 2005 at http://www.adfg.state.ak.us/pubs/notebook/fish/rainbow.php.

Gall, G., P. Crandell. 1992. "Oncorhynchus mykiss Rainbow Trout" (On-line). Fishbase. Accessed October 07, 2005 at http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?id=239.

Grubb, T. 2003. The Mind of the Trout: A Cognitive Ecology for Biologists and Anglers. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Klontz, G. 1991. "UC Davis California Aquaculture" (On-line pdf). Manual for Rainbow Trout Production on the Family-Owned Farm. Accessed October 20, 2005 at http://aqua.ucdavis.edu/dbweb/outreach/aqua/TROUTMAN.PDF.

Smith, R. 1991. Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Pp. 304-323 in J Stoltz, J Schnell, eds. Trout: The Wildlife Series. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Thrower, F., J. Hard, J. Joyce. 2004. Genetic architecture of growth and early life-history transitions in anadromous and derived freshwater populations of steelhead. Journal of Fish Biology, 65: 286-307.

Van Hulle, F. 2005. "Steelhead Trout: Wildlife Notebook Series" (On-line). Accessed October 10, 2005 at http://www.adfg.state.ak.us/pubs/notebook/fish/steelhd.php.